What’s stopping technological progress in Game of Thrones?

Talk about a great stagnation.

For as far back as we can trace the history of Westeros (estimates range from about 8000–12000 years), the technology and economy of the world has been more or less stuck in the equivalent of the European Middle-Ages. The last real technological development we are aware of is the introduction of steel weapons when the Andals invaded ~6000 years ago.

For comparison, we’ve created self-driving cars a mere 2300 years after the invention of steel. So why does Westeros seem perpetually frozen in a technological winter?

Some readers may be tempted to conclude that Westeros remains stagnant because George R.R. Martin simply enjoys writing stories with sword-fights and epic castle sieges. But this misses a valuable opportunity to examine the way institutions, philosophy, and incentives can affect economic development, even in a fictional world.

So restricting ourselves to in-world explanations, what could be going on?

Can we blame the dragons?

Evan Puschak over at The Nerdwriter (which is quickly becoming one of my favorite YouTube channels) attempts to tackle this problem in his new video “Why Dragons Halt Progress”.

I think Puschak makes some great points here, and the historical analog of Mehmed the Conqueror as Aegon Targaryen is pretty interesting. However, I think this portrayal misses some of the larger puzzle pieces at work.

First, a clarification: the most technologically advanced civilization we know of in this world is Old Valyria, which mysteriously perished over 400 years ago, but was practically drowning in dragons at the height of their empire. So the better version of this argument would be that the *scarcity* of dragons, rather than their existence, is what halts progress.

But even still, this explanation has a few holes. First off, Aegon’s conquest, and the introduction of dragons into Westeros was only 300 years ago - so it still doesn’t explain the near-complete lack of progress in the previous 7700 years.

Second, the introduction of dragons into Westeros wouldn’t appear to decrease the incentive for developing gunpowder and cannons in the first place. If anything, cannon development should be expedited as a way to fight back. We need a theory that can address this fundamental lack of innovation.

So no, I don’t think dragons are to blame for the woeful state of progress in the Seven Kingdoms.

Can we blame the weather?

One explanation may be the volatility of seasonal patterns. Stable agriculture capable of scaling and reliably feeding large armies and centralized cities is a key step in development, and the weather patterns of Westeros undermine this. In our world, we have a pretty good idea of when, and how long, winter will last. In Westeros, winter can last for years at a time, and the only forecast you have are the Stark words: “Winter is coming”. The combined unpredictability and extreme length of winter makes long-term investment difficult, and could be a major barrier to moving past subsistence farming.

One problem this theory faces is that several areas of the world do not meaningfully experience winter (The Summer Isles, Dorne, etc.), and don’t appear to be any more advanced than the kingdoms further north. Additionally, even if economic growth was significantly reduced due to the weather, you would still expect to see *some* level of development over 8000 years.

Can we blame feudal philosophy?

It may be the case that what Westeros needs is a philosophical shift before it can unlock its economic potential. The economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has made the case in her books Bourgeois Dignity and Bourgeois Equality (and summarized in a recent WSJ article) that it wasn’t until normal people were liberated and commercial success ennobled that the West was able to experience the ‘hockey-stick’ of history.

Chart from AEI

From McCloskey:

“What changed were habits of the lip. It’s not a “rise of the bourgeoisie,” but a rise in other people’s opinion of the bourgeoisie that makes for economic growth — as it is now doing in China and India. When people treat the marketeers and inventors as having some dignity and liberty, innovation takes hold. It was so to speak a shift in “constitutional political economy,” as James Buchanan puts the point. People agreed on the meta‐rule of letting the economy go where it will... It was ideas, not matter, that made the winners, and brought our ancestors from $3 to over $100 a day.”

In a feudal system like Westeros, there is no incentive for the smallfolk to innovate or improve the technology they work with. If a peasant farmer were to develop a better plow, it would most likely be confiscated by the ruling lord and the farmer would reap no piece of the benefit. Without opportunity for entrepreneurship, innovation will be scarce.

This doesn’t pose a very rosy picture for the future however… overarching philosophies of society and government are notoriously hard to change. If feudalism has proven resilient for 8000 years in Westeros, it doesn’t seem likely to change now — barring some catastrophic event (*cough* White Walkers*) or external technological development.

Can we blame the Maesters?

This all feels a bit too conceptual, I want to focus our attention on a flesh-and-blood institution that gets far too much credit in my opinion, the Maesters.

Working as solemn advisers for the many fiefdoms in the land, their order represents a proto-scientific community of sorts that has lasted for thousands of years. Upon first glance they would appear to be a positive force for progress. After all, the Maesters have one of the only formal education systems and are commissioned to serve as unbiased servants of the realm as they advise the nobility.

Further accentuating this appearance, most of the individual Maesters we’ve met through the story have been genuinely kind, wise people (with the notable exception of Grand Maester Pycelle, although it should tell you something about the order that they’ve put *him* in charge…). Maester Luwin in particular was a beloved caretaker of the Stark children and a faithful friend until the end.

But the major problems posed by the Maesters are institutional. First of all, the Maesters have a monopoly on historical and scientific knowledge that they jealously guard from the masses. In order to gain access to this knowledge you have to be a man, swear off women forever, and promise to serve a random lord in some far-flung corner of Westeros. Contrast this with the Monastic Schools of the Catholic Church which started with similar restrictions but eventually evolved into the modern University. The Maesters never evolved, and as a result never produced the growth effects early universities brought to Medieval Europe.

By maintaining their intellectual monopoly, the Maesters ensure a spot is open to their order in every castle, but they significantly retard growth in the process. The realm would be much better served if they would open up their libraries, allow anyone to come study with them, and actively partner with craftsmen in the creation of new commercial technologies.

The credentialing system used by the Maesters is also a likely impediment to progress. When Maesters are in training, they forge a chain made of links of different metals, each representing a different subject of knowledge. Gold for accounting, Silver for medicine, Black Iron for ravenry and so on. After mastering the existing knowledge on a topic, they will move on to next. Once a chain is long enough, the Maester will leave the Citadel to go advise the realm. This system produces an order full of generalists rather than specialists. Each Maester is encouraged to master the existing body of knowledge for many topics, rather than push out the boundaries of knowledge for a single subject. The culture this system perpetuates is articulated nicely by Qyburn, a former Maester who left the order:

“They study without learning, and proudly pass down the same knowledge that was passed down to them with no addition. Perhaps such is to be expected when one considers the kinds of men who become Maesters. The youngest sons of noble families, dutiful and timid, raised in the shadow of their older brothers. Or bastards and peasant boys whose minds are easily satisfied by the knowledge of their next meal. Because bold men will not be chained. They dare to ask questions that the Maesters fear to answer.”

If the primary scientific body in the land is stuck passing down the same body of knowledge from generation to generation, then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Westeros has been mired in stagnation.

Perhaps the most damaging thing the Maesters have done is to marginalize the Alchemists Guild, an ancient order that focuses on the arcane arts of transmuting metals and creating ‘The Substance’ (AKA wildfire). They are undoubtedly creepy in nature, but that doesn’t make their technological achievements any less impressive or useful.

But first, some history on the Guild.

As the histories mention, the Maesters were involved in a deliberate plot to overthrow the Guild from their position of power. The Maesters have long been known to distrust magic, and many believe that their ultimate goal is to rid the land of magic altogether. Combine this with the bad publicity that results from a King internally combusting after consuming your product, and the Guild has essentially been ostracized from society (which may also explain their poor social skills).

The last time we saw them on the show, Tyrion Lannister enlisted their help in Season 2 to help defeat Stannis Baratheon at the Blackwater, which is where we get to see the infamous wildfire in action.

With a single ship full of wildfire, the Lannisters were able to destroy a large part of the invading Baratheon fleet. Now obviously this is a pretty horrific use of the technology, but amidst the chaos of this explosion, I see the opportunity for an energy renaissance in Westeros.

Yes, I see no good reason why wildfire couldn’t be harnessed to power the next generation of innovation. Wildfire is exceedingly dangerous of course, and needs to be handled with care. But it possesses many of the traits needed of a viable energy source. It has the largest output of energy per gram of any substance we’ve seen, it can be safely transported across far distances so long as the proper safety precautions are taken, and it retains its power over extended periods of time (although it does grow more volatile).

Many of the inventions that propelled our world forward had unfortunate roots in war and human suffering before they could be applied for commercial uses. Wildfire bears particular resemblance to dynamite and nuclear power, both of which have been instrumental in the progress of our society.

The Maesters fear of magic so clouded their judgement that they marginalized the only organization with the power to create and control wildfire. And by doing so, may have smothered the best chance at ending economic stagnation. What’s really needed is for the Maesters and Alchemists Guild to join together and bring the scientific process to bear on wildfire. Through experimentation, the Guild has been able to make wildfire more reliable and stable; if the Maesters would devote time to learning about and improving wildfire, there is not telling what could be developed. Long-lasting wildfire lamps, wildfire-powered steam engines, wildfire mining tools, who knows! Instead, playing at the zero-sum game of ‘who-can-be-the-kings-advisers’ has sidelined perhaps the greatest technology available in Westeros.

A chance for reflection

Westeros has been stuck in a technological winter for nearly 8000 years. Where some people see a convenient plot device to make for an engaging fantasy series, I see an opportunity to imagine what human society might have looked like if our world had a different set of rules. In some ways, we can use fiction to run simulations of our own history again and again, changing variables and learning new things about ourselves in the process.

Others may argue that this is reading too much into Martin’s work. On the contrary, I think it stands as a testament to the vibrancy of his world-building that we can draw implications from his work far beyond his original intentions.

Progress isn’t certain in our world or in Westeros. Puschak sums this up really nicely at the end of his video: “The evolution of civilization isn’t always inevitable, it’s contingent on human action and the incentives that follow from it.”

And this matters because ultimately it’s not the highborn who need economic growth, they’ll be fine no matter what society looks like. It’s the smallfolk, the cripples, bastards, and broken things who benefit the most from innovation.

So in summary: You probably shouldn’t blame the dragons. The weather might be to blame. Feudal philosophy is to blame, but may be too difficult to change. However, feel free to blame the Maesters.



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Caleb Watney

Caleb Watney

Technology policy fellow at the R Street Institute